Anne Imhof, AI Winter, 2022. With Eliza Douglas. Directed by Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Buchholz & Sprüth Magers. Produced thanks to Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Hartwig Art Foundation and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Growing Pains – Anne Imhof’s solo-exhibition 'YOUTH' at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Issue no5
okt - nov 2022
Neo-90s

Every year, more techno-things are foisted upon young minds. Where does this ultimately lead? Jordan Ross Ellingwood turns to Anne Imhof’s solo-exhibition YOUTH at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam to search for insights amidst the high school lockers, fresh tires and staring avatars.

Does every generation think that the next crop of youth are lost, corrupt, doomed? I feel like an old fart when I see a kid at the grocery store glued to his mom’s phone like a colorful teat, and I worry for what’s to come, for the screen-addled stimuli-numb kids of Gen Alpha. There is a cycle at play here, of technological change rapidly increasing at about the inverse rate of our children’s innocence. Every year, more techno-things are foisted upon young minds – where does this ultimately lead?

Anne Imhof’s new exhibition experience, YOUTH, now showing at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, might offer some insight. The German artist presents a complex allegory using an ‘Avatar’ (played by fellow artist Eliza Douglas) as the central and only character. The Avatar carries the expression of a jaded blasé pre-teen, and wanders the confines of a snowy industrial ruin. She turns to face the camera, walks, walks some more, stops, stares, ad infinitum, and in rare moments breaks out into brief action as though controlled by some alien impulse; thrashing, smiling, licking the snow. She wears only jeans and black boots, chest bared to this harsh thing we call life.

The avatar turns to face the camera, walks, walks some more, stops, stares, ad infinitum, and in rare moments breaks out into brief action as though controlled by some alien impulse; thrashing, smiling, licking the snow

Two stills from Anne Imhof, Fate, 2022. Featuring Eliza Douglas. Directed by Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Buchholz & Sprüth Magers. Produced with the support of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Hartwig Art Foundation and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Watching this meditative loop, in combination with its equine counterpart of young horses trouncing through snow, an unmistakable feeling began to sink in: I felt youth—the rebellion of a kid throwing a rock at a shop window; the gaze of a girl taking a selfie; the expression of a boy sitting numb through his teacher’s half-hearted lesson plan on the Vichy. None of this was there en scène, but it was all felt, distilled brilliantly into the machinations of the Avatar. This was youth attempting to walk the line of society while testing its limits, flirting with either growth or explosion, gazing back into the camera as though to say, “Watch me, mom.”

Installation view Anne Imhof - Youth. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam co-presented with Hartwig Art Foundation. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Of course, there is more to YOUTH than just its A/V offerings. The exhibition twists through a labyrinth of objects meant to evoke and comment on the woes of our younglings: FOMO, loneliness, hyper-individualism. We begin through a dark narrow corridor of gray metal lockers that call to mind our school days as well as a feeling of being led to some inevitable bovine end. Here’s a fun pop-association question that may further induce high school flashback. Cows are to a slaughterhouse as youth are to a ______? The glowing red dystopic-industrial maze we find here is certainly analogous. I watched as a young girl popped open locker after locker only to find nothing after nothing, and wondered if her dad felt the same sense of dread as he followed along closing the doors after her.

We’re also greeted by stacks of fresh tires (waiting to be burned out via parking lot donuts?), steel diving platforms to nowhere, and large vats of fluids I assumed (hoped) were seminal. Some of these metaphorical objects were a bit too on the nose for me: an electric guitar resting by a crash pad with energy drinks—sure, ok—though better was a giant motorcycle that stares back through glass display like a beefy minotaur. (The motorcycle threw me down a tangent I attribute to this exhibition's juvenile theme: What happens to the motorcycle? Was it purchased with museum funding, and will the artist ride it victoriously out of the Stedelijk basement when this is all over? I pray.) I was disappointed that the descriptions on the wall explaining the exhibit left little to the imagination, like flipping to the back of a textbook for the answer.

We begin through a dark narrow corridor of gray metal lockers that call to mind our school days as well as a feeling of being led to some inevitable bovine end

Installation view Anne Imhof - Youth. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam co-presented with Hartwig Art Foundation. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Installation view Anne Imhof - Youth. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam co-presented with Hartwig Art Foundation. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

The exhibition culminates with another glimpse at our Avatar titled Fate, and it’s here that the artist offers something like an answer to the question of YOUTH. The Avatar has mounted one of the wild horses and steadies it on a dark snowy plane, pupils dilated black as an expression of genuine joy flits across the face. The confining structures of our previous encounter are gone, and it feels as though this youth has escaped the labyrinth. Like much of what came before, the imagery here is minimalist and honed, intimate yet dissociated, and I found it to be a beautiful conclusion that I only wish were explored further. Though maybe this is to be found in our own imaginative doodling within the margins, and not in the back of the book?

There is another lens through which the exhibit can be viewed. YOUTH was originally meant to first be shown at Moscow’s Garage Museum, but with the outbreak of war, plans changed. War has a way of hitting youth the hardest, as the recent conscription of young Russian men has made clear, and this reality adds to the tension and potential interpretations of our Avatar.

The elephant not in the room here is live performance, as the usual Imhof ensemble that audiences have come to know and love is absent but for Eliza Douglas on-screen. Her past work, in which she has choreographed a dynamic group of performers that move amidst the museum crowd, is difficult to describe. Imagine a circus of lobotomized Balenciaga models on hefty amounts of LSD, and you may start to get a picture of the experience. It’s no mistake that the art world has become enthralled with something that is live and fleeting in a world that is increasingly regurgitated and eternal through a screen, and her award of the Golden Lion for her German Pavilion at 2017’s Venice Biennale is evidence enough that she has struck a nerve here. However, with her growing reputation, at a certain point this type of performance work just doesn’t scale. This lack of personnel creates a loneliness in YOUTH, one that the artist has attempted to use in her favor, though her fans will still feel a bit of a withdrawal.

Installation view Anne Imhof - Youth. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam co-presented with Hartwig Art Foundation. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Installation view Anne Imhof - Youth. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam co-presented with Hartwig Art Foundation. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Installation view Anne Imhof - Youth. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam co-presented with Hartwig Art Foundation. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

The ailments on show here apply to the adults of our world just as much as to the youth. After all, who amongst us doesn’t feel a pang of loneliness or FOMO after doomscrolling through the social media poison of our choosing? We are no longer free to exist in this moment unconnected to every previous tweet, post, or like, now infantilized by algorithms that feed recommendations to our inner-child that cries, “I want it!” And so I wondered, is there such a thing as an adult left in this society, one in which at times even our leaders act as though they are children hoarding all the good toys? Are we stunted in our development, lost in the puerile labyrinth, stuck in perpetual youth like the loop of the ‘Avatar’. I hope we can find a way to collectively make it through these techno-social growing pains and ride out of this mess, though it remains to be seen whether we will choose the motorcycle or the horse.

MEER OVER ANNE IMHOF IN METROPOLIS M NUMMER 5 - 2022 NEO-90s. NU IN DE WINKEL OF BESTEL: [email protected]

Anne Imhof's exhibition YOUTH is on view at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam until the 29th of January, 2023

Jordan Ross Ellingwood
is a writer and artist in Amsterdam

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